Friday, 4 April 2008

Frost Free

I wrote this for the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition held every year at this time. This is the third time I've entered, and the third time I've failed to place, but I will continue to enter anyway. I do it for my mother, who loved Erma Bombeck's weekly column, and for Erma herself, because she gave my mother so much happiness. And of course, for a shot at that $100 prize.

Just before Christmas last year, the refrigerator decided to take a vacation. Can’t say I blame it.

Things got out of hand when I went back to work in November. Instead of discarding the last inch of juice or milk, my husband and kids just put it back in the fridge. New items were bought and only partially consumed. Things soured, curdled and festered. Soon we were all holding our noses every time the fridge door was opened, and its shelves were full to bursting: I counted three bottles of catsup, four jars each of preserved peppers and olives, five tubs of margarine – and I’ve lost track of the mayonnaise, but let’s just say that if a football team wanted a week’s worth of sandwiches, we’d have been good to go.

My old-fashioned ideas about using up what we’ve got don’t work in this household. New stuff is routinely purchased before the old is finished. Understandably more popular than the old, it is quickly opened and dipped into. New stuff quickly becomes sort-of-new stuff, and soon we have old, sort-of-old, and sort-of-new-but-dipped-into stuff – and you stand a better chance of finding Penicillin than you do of finding jam without bread crumbs in it.

Before I went back to work, I always used up leftovers. I grated the last desiccated hunk of cheese into a casserole. Put the three-day-old leftover mashed potatoes into the bread dough. Recycled the dubious ratatouille into a pasta sauce. They say the only things you don’t want to see being made are laws and sausages, but you should have watched me fix dinner when the refrigerator needed cleaning.

Just before Christmas, I realized that the stuff inside the fridge was warmer than the stuff outside. All the milk had turned to yoghurt. Juice cartons were obviously swollen, and everything stank to high heaven. In the freezer, melted chocolate ice cream (one of seven tubs, all approximately 1/8th full) mixed with defrosted mackerel juices. Pumpkin puree bled into thawed peas.

I felt like weeping, throwing out all my carefully labelled soups, casseroles, and home-grown fruit and vegetables. Months earlier I’d filled all those containers in a fit of energetic optimism, picturing myself home from work in my smart, new business clothes, ready to cook the items I’d thoughtfully managed to defrost that morning. It’s the story of my life: I try to make things easier on myself and all I end up doing is stockpiling one hell of a mess.

Somewhere the refrigerator’s frost-free soul is basking in tropical warmth, sipping pina coladas, laughing at the thought of all those festering jam jars and 1/16th full milk cartons it no longer has to worry about.

I’m tempted to go and join it.


Brave Astronaut said...

I'm tempted to compete with you. My mother also loved Erma. I think there was a dog-eared copy of "The Grass is Greener" on our bookshelves.

If you permit me, another brief story about my mother and Erma's similarities.

My mother didn't like to clean. My sister is "nasty neat." My sister decided to commemorate my mother's lack of cleaning desire in a needlework.

She stitched a huge sampler that read, "Housework is a Bummer". While my sister worked on it, her husband, who was still learning the ins and outs of our family, kept saying, "Are you sure she's going to like this? She won't be offended? My mother would be offended." My sister assured him that she was going to love it.

Of course my mother loved it and it hung at the end of the entrance hall, as my mother said, to serve as explanation as to why the house looked like it did when you came in.


Katie Alender said...

No, Mary, don't go to refrigerator heaven! We need you here.

BTW, that is totally what my refrigerator looks like.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Cats are very finicky about eating leftovers, aren't they? Perhaps you should buy a goat.

The Anti-Wife said...

At last, a difference between us. Nothing stays in my refrigerator for long and everything is used up completely then tossed out. My mother had the refrigerator from hell and I think my diligence now is a reaction to the revulsion I used to feel when I opened her fridge.

Mary Witzl said...

BA -- Good for your sister knowing what your mother would like!

While I too would love a sampler like that (to warn the unsuspecting), the truth is that I am a convert to tidiness. I was a bit of a slob when I was a kid, but a dozen international moves (really) straightened me out.

The reason our fridge is a mess is because one against three isn't a fair fight, and I have better things to do than to spend ALL my time nagging and tidying up after others. I do a fair amount of that as it is, but hardly by choice; I am always eager to hurry back to the computer to waste my time writing instead.

Katie -- But I don't WANT my fridge to look like this! Waaaah!

Still, I'm glad to know that somebody needs me! Not just the wretched little ingrates that sully my fridge (sniff).

GB -- Funny you should say that: It has been one of my life's ambitions to some day have a goat. They are wonderful animals, and I have seen them eat the most fearful-looking leftovers. You're right about the cat. I suspect you've got one yourself.

AW -- But I would have a fridge like that if I lived alone, too! The only reason our fridge got into that state with all the leftover bits is because I went back to work and my good husband, who goes overboard with quantities and cooks eight times more than we need, also tends not to notice leftovers. And bless him, he will buy new stuff before we've used up the old.

Oops -- he's probably going to read this. (Hi, honey!)

Kim Ayres said...

Surely the girls' pocket money is (or could be) dependent on the smell of the fridge...

-eve- said...

The story is good enough for a column in MY opinion (and anyway, the stories that win these kind of competitions are often a bit weird :-))! I share your love of conservation; my maid likes to leave things to rot in the fridge, which always strikes me as such a waste...

Angelique said...



debra said...

Erma spoke to a part of all of us, I think. I'm not a neat-freak by any stretch of the imagination. I do appreciate it when they are NO science experiments in the refrigerator. When I am the only one who is looking out for breen fuzzy stuff, it is a losing battle. My husband puts the orange juice carto back in the refrigerator. I see it in there and assume we have juice. ...... then I lift u the carton and find 1/4 inch of juice.
Go figure!

Carole said...

Very funny. And very Bombeck like.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- This would be a good idea, but as my husband and I are great fans of kimchi and takuan (spicy pickled cabbage and pickled daikon root respectively), our fridge tends to smell a little anyway, even when it is pristine. Rest assured, our kids would point this out...

Eve -- Whenever anything rots in the fridge, it is almost always because I didn't manage to see it first. I HATE wasting food, and I believe that the ability to recycle leftovers ought to be taught in schools. But -- you have a MAID? Wooooow.

Angelique -- I'll be over there shortly!

Debra -- I'm with you on the science experiments. I don't like finding things like slugs, fecal samples, etc, in the fridge, but there are worse things. One of my father's favorite stories was of his mother freaking out to find a human foot in their icebox. His brother was a medical student.

As for the orange juice thing, this is also a chronic failing of my family's. They can't be bothered to throw out the package or container, so they put it back on the shelf and let me do it. On the rare occasions I shop, I don't bother to replenish the item in question, as I believe we already have it. Grrr.

Carole -- Thank you! 'Bombeck- like.' That pleases me no end.

Danette Haworth said...

Oh, Mary! All your hard work. But I must confess to always being the one to open the new ice cream carton if the old one doesn't contain enough for what I feel is a "single serving."

A Paperback Writer said...

That does sound a bit like Erma, bravo.
I've been an Erma fan since I was about 12. The first book of hers I ever fell in love with was If Life Is A Bowl Of Cherries, What Am I Doing In The Pits? I think I own all of her books now, and my favorite is probably When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It's Time To Go Home.
What a woman she was!
Oh, and I don't know if the fridge stuff is true, but it reminds me of how one year the plug got knocked out for our deep freeze in the basement, which was loaded with meat, especially a butchered deer my dad had killed early in the fall. No one noticed for a few weeks because the freezer was shut so tightly. Then Mom noticed some leakage onto the basement floor.
Ah, the smell of rotting meat..... It took days of open windows to get it out of the basement, and the freezer became unusable and had to be taken to the dump. Ugh.

Merry Monteleone said...

I'm a bit like anti-wife, my mother never seemed to clean out the fridge or cabinets, so unless I knew the item was brand new, I never touched it, worrying how long it'd been in there... My own fridge gets tossed every thursday - friday is garbage day. I'm religious about making sure left overs that aren't eaten get tossed by the week mark - though I can't claim to thoroughly clean the shelves with a rag as often as I should...

Oddly enough, that's one of the few things I'm religious about with housekeeping - my house is a mess pretty much constantly... but that and new sheets (mostly because I love the feel of freshly laundered sheets so the bedding gets changed on schedule).

Another odd factoid - my house was a catastrophe as a kid and my mother, another disorganized writer, would never claim to be a good homemaker. Our kitchen looked like someone's office - half the table covered with paperwork, her typewriter set up on a typing table right next to her favorite chair... file folders scattered to and fro... My own kitchen table never ever has papers on it... if I work on my writing there, the work goes back to my own mess in my living room after... oh, I have that mess of papers on my dining room table but never the kitchen (I still have the habit in the genes but I fool myself into thinking I've overcome it during morning coffee).

Ello said...

Mary, you have such a great way with telling stories so that I can smell, see and hear it all!

Mary Witzl said...

Danette -- What irritated me the most was all the red and black currants I'd picked and frozen, which I'd hoped would last us through the winter. And the homemade chili, dal, and other soups. Now here's a virtual swat on your hand for opening another ice cream container before finishing the first! My kids would love you.

APW -- YES, the refrigerator story is absolutely true, but it can't top yours! Good God -- a whole deer? That is awful! My stepmother had a fully packed freezer in her basement. One day one of her great grandchildren went waltzing through her basement and managed to unplug it without realizing it. The whole neighborhood had to come and help her eat everything, once it had thawed. (Given the 40 degree plus temperature, it thawed pretty quick.) Apparently there is a name for such parties. One year there was an electric failure and their part of Southern California could have fed half of Arizona.

Merry -- I have certain areas of the house that I tend to keep very tidy -- my bedroom is one, and the bathroom I prefer to use is another. I try to keep the kitchen clean, but as soon as I get it tidy, someone comes through and trashes it. At some point, I figured I'd have to pick between a tidy kitchen with me bitching even more than I already do, or the big mess we usually have, and the comparatively modest amount of bitching I do now. (My family will dispute that 'comparatively modest' qualification, but this is MY blog.) I opted for less tidiness and less bitching, and I've learned to set my jaw and try not to notice too much.

Ello -- Thank you for that nice compliment, but be glad you couldn't REALLY smell the thawed mackeral and melted chocolate ice cream. The kitchen made me positively ill every time I accidentally got a whiff.

Kara said...

i'd vote for you.

ChristineEldin said...

I didn't realize this was a true story until I read the comments.
A very nice vignette. I've never read Erma so I can't compare, but I enjoyed this one!

Mary Witzl said...

Kara -- Thanks, Kara. I'd vote for me too, if I were running for chief refrigerator custodian.

Christine -- Our fridge is pretty tidy now, as I did not keep my job (sniff), but this is really a true story. I may exaggerate from time to time, but by and large everything I write on this blog really happened. Awful, isn't it?

The Quoibler said...


I believe that a cluttered, oozing, smelly fridge is the sign of a loving, imaginative, eclectic family.

Or am I kidding myself?


Great job!


Brian said...

Getting my emails ? One there for the 8th



Phil said...

Just popping in, Mary. Never heard of Erma - but a good read nonetheless. I have to confess I find fridges and what lurks there pretty exciting. Not being particularly worried about sell by dates makes for adventurous eating.

Take care


Mary Witzl said...

Angelique -- Boy, do I hope you're right! All those people with the pristine, glitteringly hygienic fridges I crave -- just think how boring and uncreative their lives are, huh? And I'll bet their grapes are sour too. Sigh.

Brian -- I did get your e-mails, but you did not get mine! Hope you had a very happy you-know-what. I suspect that my e-mails are being trapped in some sort of terrorist checking filter...

Phil -- Yay, this is almost like a GW reunion, with you and Brian here in the same post! I wish you two both had blogs. Sue has one, but she is too busy doing REAL writing to post on it all the time... You are welcome to come for a meal here anytime, Phil, with that sort of attitude. I've got some wonderful kimchi in the fridge right now that I'm waiting to eat. Fortunately it keeps practically forever...

Dori said...

Good post.